Two Films Reviewed: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Two Popes

I’ve recently watched two films: one (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) disappointed me unexpectedly; the other (The Two Popes) impressed me unexpectedly. What follows isn’t perhaps so much a review of both but an outline of my personal taste in films — make of it what you will.

I had high expectations of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Others had recommended it, and the title seemed to indicate that it might be the kind of quirky wartime comedy/drama which managed to blend together the seriousness of the Second World War (by basing itself in the only British territory to be occupied by the Nazis during that war) with some unconventional or eccentric humour and perhaps an unusual or even outlandish screenplay, producing what I hoped would be a little classic. Hence my disappointment: it turned out to be prosaic, predictable and poorly written. The screenplay was ordinary and laboured; the actors worked hard to bring life and depth to a plodding script, but ultimately failed. Yes, the background scenery is beautiful; yes, the presence of Nazis adds some frisson, as it might be expected to do — but my goodness, how much does an audience need to have the plot points telegraphed to it? Juliet Ashton (played by Lily James, brilliant in The Dig but given far too little to work with here), the painfully two-dimensional author from London, travels to Guernsey on a whim to meet with a man with whom she has been corresponding — already a clue to future romance — and then ‘accidentally’ meets him as she arrives on the island, without realising who he is at first. But the audience knows, and the director might as well have tattooed ‘Love interest’ to his forehead. In their initial encounter, James looks as though she was told ‘act awkwardly upon meeting Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman)’, though she has no motivation to do so except that she is blatantly going to fall in love with him (also without believable motivation) later.

Standard archetypes are present: Tom Courtenay barely breaks a sweat playing the slightly doddery old postmaster; Penelope Wilton, perhaps the best actor in the piece, manages to inject some realistic emotion into her part as the bereft old lady. Adams struggles to bring any third dimension to his lover role; the rest of the cast are acting by numbers for the most part.

In brief, the film is heavily trope-dependent — we hate Nazis, we expect the single woman to break off her engagement and end up with her rustic correspondent, we know that all will end happily because 'it’s that kind of film' — and possesses no life of its own. I think my main disappointment is that the title hints at more: this could have been much quirkier, much more challenging, far more interesting. It was a missed opportunity to tell the real story of the occupation of the Channel Islands in a new and gripping way. Instead, it doesn’t even tell the simple love story well. I actually broke off watching the film and was not going to waste my time with the second half, but I like to complete things once I’ve started and so sat through the second hour, but I needn’t have bothered, it didn’t get any better.